Home Politics John Aronno: On Politics What the Political Mess in Kansas Says About Mead Treadwell

What the Political Mess in Kansas Says About Mead Treadwell

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A Republican and a Democrat are facing off against each other in the 2014 midterm elections. The race is in a very red state, but the incumbent Republican has shown signs of weakness; polls showing him in a tight race against a challenger. But there’s a hitch: a third candidate vying for the position as an independent. With the Democratic and independent challengers likely to split the anti-incumbent vote, both know they cannot win while the other remains in the race.

Fun fact: I’m not talking about Alaska.

Kansas is arguably the reddest state in the union, offering conservative candidates a 21.7 point electoral advantage. The Governor and entire congressional delegation are Republicans. The last time the state voted blue in a presidential election was 50 years ago, and no Kansan Democrat has held a seat in the U.S. Senate since 1939. For three years running, every single one of the 165 elected officials in the Kansas State Legislature has been a Republican.

So, logic would dictate that longtime incumbent Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) should be a shoe-in by Don Young numbers.

Photo by U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Creative Commons Licensing.
Photo by U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Creative Commons Licensing.

When Roberts ran in 1996, he beat his Democratic opponent with 62 percent of the vote. He secured that seat six years later, unopposed, with 82 percent of the vote, and is the longest-serving member of the Kansas delegation. But residency issues and the civil war within the Republican Party (Roberts seems to be suffering from his close relationship to Governor Sam Brownback, who moderate Republicans are none too fond of) have taken a major toll. He barely squeaked by a — and this is a technical term — crazy person in the GOP primary with less than 50 percent of the vote.

So, the Democrats are thrilled, right?

Not really. Well, not at all. The Kansas Democratic Party brand is in grave disrepair. Chad Taylor, a Shawnee County District Attorney and Roberts’ Democratic challenger, struggled mightily to gain traction and attempts to raise funds were akin to pulling teeth. Compounding those elements was the presence of a third candidate in Greg Orman. As pollster mogul Nate Silver describes him:

Orman rates as left of center by the various ideology measures we track. His stated policy positions are similar to those of a moderate, red-state Democrat; he’s said he believes “in Second Amendment rights of Americans to keep and bear arms,” but he also advocates an amnesty program for undocumented immigrants and supports abortion rights. Orman was formerly a member of the Democratic Party, having run briefly for Senate as a Democrat in 2008.

Silver also cites polling data indicating that Orman could pick up around 20 percent of the vote in a three-way race, helping Roberts maintain a loose grip on an eight point overall lead.

But Orman has a very attractive quality that Taylor cannot enjoy: he’s not a Democrat. That sobering reality was enough to prompt Taylor to swallow a very bitter pill, drop out of the race, and throw his weight behind Orman.

One little hitch: Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach isn’t removing his name from the ballot. Remember just how conservative Kansas is? With trifecta control of state government? That majority comes with a lot of partisanship.

Kansas law states that nominees may only opt out of a ballot if they formally submit a letter declaring themselves “incapable of fulfilling the duties of office if elected.”

Taylor’s letter did not specifically contain those words. However, it kind of did. Sort of:

I, Chadwick J. Taylor, Democratic nominee for the United States Senate race, do hereby withdraw my nomination for election effective immediately and request my name be withdrawn from the ballot, pursuant to KSA 25-306b(b).

That last bit is the important part, explicitly tying his rescission to the requirements state law establishes for withdrawal. Taylor ran the letter by Assistant Secretary of State Brad Bryant to confirm that it was sufficient. Bryant, acting in an official capacity, said that it was. And it pretty clearly is. Just the same, Bryant’s boss overruled him.

Taylor said that he will challenge that decision, and accused Kobach of political shenanigans. In Kansas, the secretary of state is an elected position independent from the governor’s race. Kobach is facing former Republican State Senator (now a Democrat) Jean Schodorf.

The political maneuvering in Kansas offers sharp contrast to the merged campaigns of gubernatorial hopefuls Bill Walker and Byron Mallott in Alaska last week. Faced with a similar three-way race that effectively assured incumbent Governor Sean Parnell’s (R-AK) reelection, Mallott dropped out and joined the Walker ticket as his lieutenant governor (which is the equivalent to secretary of state in Kansas — in fact, Alaska’s second position in the executive was the secretary of state until it was switched to lieutenant governor 1970). Correspondingly, Walker’s lite governor pick, Craig Fleener, asked that his name be removed from the ballot.

Outgoing Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell was confronted with the same duty in Alaska as Kobach was in Kansas. Kansas law stipulates fleenerthe conditions in which a candidate can drop out of a race. When it comes to a non-party candidate for lieutenant governor, Alaska does not. Treadwell had an easy out — through the absence of existing law — that afforded him the autonomy to bar Fleener from rescinding his nomination, thus preventing the fusion ticket.

He didn’t.

Last Wednesday, Special Assistant to Treadwell, Scott Meriweather, filed emergency regulations regarding Fleener’s withdrawal. Basically, Meriweather issued an executive order from the desk of the lieutenant governor establishing temporary rules for a non-party lite governor candidate’s withdrawal — and permitting Fleener to drop out under them — until the legislature can patch the gap in existing law.

Alaska does have provisions for nominees who are affiliated with political parties to drop out. They simply have to do so 48 days prior to the general. Logic would dictate that the same standard would apply to non-party candidates, but it isn’t explicitly spelled out in statute. The same goes for candidates in Kansas; the section directly before the one Kobach employed to justify his action states that candidates need only request removal in writing, signed by the candidate, and presented to the appropriate officer. Kobach ignored the blatant spirit of the law and instead sought out a more rigorous standard in order to prevent Taylor’s withdrawal.

The two examples serve as important displays of how elected officials chose to execute the law, and each bears potentially huge ramifications come November; Kansas could swing control of the U.S. Senate and Alaska could send a new governor to Juneau.

In Kansas, Secretary of State Kris Kobach chose to cherry-pick interpretations of law and ignore the opinion of his colleague, Bryant, for overtly political purposes. In Alaska, Treadwell decided to adhere to the counsel he received from Attorney General Michael Geraghty and the Department of Law, and follow the spirit of existing law.

In a perfect world — or even one with a modicum of trust in our elected officials — it should seem ridiculous that the act of a public servant prioritizing the law over partisan politics would be worthy of praise. But in the world in which we happen to reside, it seems Alaskans owe Treadwell a debt of gratitude for doing just that.

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